Five years ago, Unilever announced a “radical recycling process” aimed at tackling a huge waste scourge it helped create: billions of single-use bags littering Southeast Asia’s landfills, polluting waterways and washing up on beaches.
The “sachet economy” of single portions at low prices, aimed at poorer consumers, began in much of the developing world in the 1990s. Sold in shops and stalls across Southeast Asia and Africa, these colorful palm packets contain everything from shampoo to coffee. But their size and multi-layer structure make them almost impossible to collect and recycle. In Indonesia, which lacks infrastructure to manage waste, they represent the ultimate symbol of throwaway culture, accounting for 16% of all plastic waste.
The ocean swirls with plastic. More than 8 million tonnes flow into the sea every year, are spewed out via rivers, dumped on coastlines or abandoned by fishing vessels. Plastic even pollutes the air: in many places it literally rains plastic.
But while ocean pollution suggests that plastic bottles or straws tip over, these make up only a fraction of the total. In this series, the Guardian’s Seascape project looks at what’s in this plastic avalanche to find out where it’s coming from, the damage it’s causing and what can be done to fix it.
The type of plastic that spreads through ocean ecosystems depends on where you look. While bags and food packaging dominate the shoreline, further out there are abandoned fishing gear and plastic lids.
Some sources of plastic pollution are less obvious, such as cigarette butts and bags. Then there’s the vast, invisible amount of microplastics—trillions of tiny fibers and beads that are now so much a part of our water systems that most people drink a credit card’s worth of it every week.
Microplastics themselves have many sources. It comes from clothing fibers released in washing machines, and from nurdles, the building blocks of many plastic items that are often spilled by the billions from ships, causing as much damage as oil spills (but still not classified as hazardous).
And it comes, in huge quantities (representing about a quarter of all microplastics in the ocean), from tire dust – the residue generated when people drive their cars (and even bikes) down the street.
Chris Michael, Seascape Editor
Indonesia produces 7.8 million tonnes of plastic waste a year, according to the World Bank, of which 4.9 million tonnes are uncollected, dumped or left in mismanaged landfills. An estimated 4.5% of this plastic waste – or approximately 350,000 tonnes – ends up in the ocean.
To tackle this growing problem, Unilever launched a waste collection scheme in Indonesia in 2017, which it said would help “empower” waste pickers, who are responsible for recycling much of the country’s plastic waste and are among the poorest and most marginalized workers. .
At the same time, the company launched a pilot recycling facility using a system called CreaSolv that promised to recycle bags into new products as part of Unilever’s pledge to ensure all plastic packaging was fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. Unilever said the facility in Sidoarjo, East -Java, was designed to recycle polyethylene, which makes up more than 60% of the bags’ layers, to produce high-quality polymers, which are then made into new bags.
But Indonesian garbage collectors, organizations representing garbage pickers and environmental organizations tell a different story. Unilever abruptly halted the collection scheme that underpinned the project, they told the Guardian, leaving uncollected waste to pile up outside the waste banks.
Some waste collectors, unable to find buyers for the uncollected bag waste, burned it to provide more lucrative waste streams, creating air pollution. Meanwhile, waste pickers working at landfills said they were no better off, as bag waste has too little value to be collected.
The scheme was an “expensive failure”, said Yobel Novian Putra, the clean energy officer at the non-profit organization Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (Gaia) Indonesia.
Putra’s organization published a report in January which concluded that the Unilever scheme had failed due to the low recyclability and low value of the waste. “It is a lot of effort to collect bag waste and the price is very low,” said Putra, who added: “Unilever has not authorized waste pickers and given them an income.”
The Guardian’s findings follow a Reuters report last year, which quoted two people involved in Unilever’s CreaSolv plant as claiming plans to build a full-scale operation had been shelved. It was not commercially viable, they told Reuters, because of the cost of collecting, sorting and cleaning the bags.
Unilever denied the report’s findings, saying the plant was still operating and that it was “actively working” to scale up the technology. In a statement, Unilever said the pilot plant had been severely disrupted by Covid, which had affected the collection service.
In Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia’s second largest city, an hour from Unilever’s new recycling plant, operators of local waste banks, or “bank sampahs”, said bag waste had piled up since Unilever stopped collecting it.
Sales of bags are forecast to increase by 5.8% by 2031
Sutarti, a veteran waste trader of 15 years from Bangkingan village, accepts almost all types of non-organic waste – from plastic bags to glass bottles. But she never used to collect bags, as she was unable to find a buyer.
About five years ago, Unilever approached her waste bank. “They said they would buy our bag waste,” Sutarti said. “They also gave us some funds to start it.” She was enthusiastic.
“I bought [sachet waste] for around 500 rupiah [3p] per kilo, then Unilever bought it from us for around 800 rupiah,” she said, giving her a modest profit of 300 rupiah per kilo.
After two years, however, the scheme stopped. Unilever told her there was a fire at the factory processing the waste and it had to stop bag collection, she said. “Last year they told us they would continue it again, but there is still no news.”
She has been left with bag waste piling up and nowhere to put it. “Nobody wants to buy them,” Sutarti said, “I tried to keep them. But we have nowhere to store them, so I’ve been trying to burn them little by little every day.”
Other waste banks are also struggling to get rid of the bag waste Unilever offered to buy.
Erna Utami, operations manager at a bank sampah in Babatan Pilang, a suburb of Surabaya, said Unilever helped build and manage the facility before bag waste collection stopped in 2017.
“There are still three sacks of bag waste left in our place,” Utami said. – We are very disappointed. We have tried to report this problem to the authorities and the company at every seminar or meeting on waste that we attend.”
We don’t have anywhere to store the bags, so I’ve been trying to burn them little by little every day
Sutarti, waste dealer
Shanti Wurdiani Ramadhani, who helps manage the bank sampah in Jombang regency, East Java, said it had about a ton of unclaimed waste bags.
“We tried to store the bag waste that people have collected because we don’t want them to burn them or throw them in the river,” Shanti said. She has since asked members to stop sending the waste, because they were running out of storage space. The price Unilever paid the waste banks for bag waste was too low, compared to the price for other waste, she added.
Pris Polly Lengkong, head of the Independent Indonesia Scavengers’ Associations (PPIM), a group with 3.7 million members, said bags were the least valuable type of waste. Scavengers working at Bantar Gebang, Southeast Asia’s largest landfill, located about 32km from Jakarta, earn only around 1.5p per kg from bags. In comparison, plastic bottles cost 20p per kilo and even a kilo of plastic bags is worth about 7p.
“In the mountains of waste in Bantar Gebang, you can find lots of multi-layer bag waste,” said Lengkong, who works as a middleman who buys waste from scavengers and resells it.
“They can’t be absorbed by scavengers because they don’t get any value for them,” he said.
Sales of bags are forecast to increase at a CAGR of 5.8% between 2021 and 2031, according to a market report.
While many countries have banned single-use plastics, few cover bag waste, with some exceptions such as Sri Lanka, which banned some bags last year.
Last September, Coca-Cola’s subsidiary in the Philippines promised to phase out plastic bags and straws in the country, ahead of a law banning plastic straws and coffee stirrers.
Unilever chief executive Alan Jope has called for an end to the bags, saying they were “quite impossible to mechanically recycle” and therefore had “no real value”. However, the company privately lobbied against proposed bans in India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, Reuters reported in June.
A spokesperson for Unilever said it continued to work with authorities on solutions such as replacing multi-layer bags with recyclable alternatives, adding: “We need to consider whether technical alternatives are both viable at scale and affordable for low-income consumers, while ensuring that they do it” t lead to unintended consequences.
“We have been trialling the use of CreaSolv technology at our Indonesian pilot plant, where our initial work has addressed the technology’s technical and commercial viability.”
The company said it had been able to recycle the polyethylene from multi-layer bags to produce “high-quality polymers”, which are then used in the packaging.
Related: Tire dust: the “stealth pollution” that is becoming a major threat to marine life
Unilever declined to explain how it would achieve its goal of making all packaging, including bags, reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.
“Our work at the pilot plant has been severely disrupted due to Covid-19, which has affected all parts of our trial, including the collection of bags as feedstock for the plant. The plant remains operational and we are actively working with other partners to find out whether it is possible to scale this technology, the spokesperson said.
For campaigners like Putra, the company needs to do a lot more to tackle the waste scourge it has created. He said: “Unilever is pushing the problem of their difficult to recycle material onto our communities. They created the market and it is their responsibility to solve it.”